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Concert note.

Ivan Moravec, at Carnegie Hall, New York.

The Czech pianist Ivan Moravec gave the final concert of his U.S. tour at Carnegie Hall on November 27th with a program of works by Janacek (Sonata I.X. 1905), Debussy (the second of the Estampes, "La Soiree dans Grenade," and Pour le Piano), and Chopin (Ballade in F minor and, after intermission, the twenty-four Preludes). I was also lucky enough to hear him at the exquisite Middlebury College Center for the Arts (four-hundred seats) on November 18th. On that occasion, eight of Chopin's Mazurkas opened the program plus the Fantasie in F minor, with the Janacek and Debussy offerings after intermission. They were splendid concerts, and it cannot be entirely rude to inquire why this supreme pianist, at age seventy-one--justifiably included in the Philips set of the "Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century"--should find himself giving recitals on this tour in such places as Richmond, Virginia; Portland, Maine; and Young Harris College in Georgia.

Born in Prague in 1930, he came to early maturity in postwar Czechoslovakia, where politics and artistic freedom collided ceaselessly--he never joined the party and thus his "so-called career" (his words) was constantly thwarted by the state booking agency. Nonetheless, great musicians recognized him early on. In the late 1950S Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli invited him to his informal school in Arezzo--Moravec fondly recalls the "3 x 40 minutes" of tutelage at the piano with the genial Italian, plus the copious vino. In 1962, two young Americans, co-owners of the fledgling Connoisseur Society, wrested Moravec from the clutches of the cultural bureaucrats, flew him to New York, and began a series of incomparable piano recordings done in various Manhattan locations with an exquisitely voiced Baldwin grand. These recordings of music by Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Beethoven, and Brahms established Moravec's reputation as a supreme master of space, rubato, and stern, but still fiery, elegance. (They have been recently reissued by VAI.) Not surprisingly, George Szell gave him a welcome invitation to play Beethoven's Fourth Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra in January 1964, followed by a Carnegie Hall debut one month later. His reputation grew throughout the 1970S and the 1980S, and with the "velvet revolution" of the late 1980s in Czechoslovakia Moravec gained total freedom of movement and is now a pianist of international renown, comparable without exaggeration or hype with such past masters as Cortot, Gieseking, and Lipatti, though not wholly recognized as such--that will only come postmortem.

The fact that Moravec is not exactly a household name may be due to the nature of his repertoire. It is gratifying to list in this regard what he never plays: such pianistic cannonaders as Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff--staples of a competition contestant and general careerist. As his programs and recordings demonstrate, the heart of his repertory lies in Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Franck, Dvorak, Janacek, Debussy, and Chopin. Utterly unthinkable would be a final encore such as Manuel de Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance," with which Artur Rubinstein used to wow the crowds with a blur of hands at the end of his concerts. I remember well such a finale, delivered at the Bushnell Memorial Auditorium, Hartford, Connecticut, c. 194-5. At age ten, I was, of course, stunned.

Within Moravec's preferred repertory, there are even more special preferences; in Beethoven, for instance, such sonatas as the "Appassionata" "Pathetique" "Moonlight," "Les Adieux" gain preference over such works as the "Hammerklavier" or the "Diabelli" variations. Moravec's choices have nothing to do with technical limitations; it is important to emphasize that his massive technical resources are all the more evident because they are so severely subjugated to entirely musical ends--no pounding, no garish triple fortes, no clatter. The recitals at Middlebury and Carnegie Hall were rich demonstrations of his special mastery of space in music--getting the air between the notes--and the lightest insinuation of rubato at key points, where a millisecond delay or a slightly anticipated chord makes all the difference between a studied literalism and a kind of easy, improvisational musical nonchalance.

I got the impression that the Middlebury audience was puzzled by Moravec's advocacy of the knotty two-movement Janacek sonata. In the splendid sonic setting of Carnegie Hall, the work had a more orchestral delivery. Audience reception was still wary, but a bit more enthusiastic on behalf of the novelty. As for the more traditional repertory, the pianist has been living with it for a long time, and, though there were no radical differences in approach between the two concerts and the canonic recordings, there were special nuances. For instance, at Middlebury, Moravec played as a final encore Chopin's seventeen-bar Prelude No. 7 in A major. It was a stately and exquisitely molded sendoff to an appreciative audience (standing ovation), but it was played without much rhythmic pulse. In Carnegie Hall, while playing all twenty-four of the Preludes, he delivered No. 7 much more quickly, with a Viennese lilt and lift, emphasizing its 3/4 time, providing perfect contrast to the next Prelude in F sharp minor, "molto agitato." He was playing the same notes, but they were utterly recast. And, too, I suspect that Moravec revelled in the more generous acoustics of Carnegie Hall for his Debussy selections, done with stunning atmosphere and panache.

Alexander Coleman reviews music regularly for The New Criterion.
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Author:Coleman, Alexander
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Concert Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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